Although related, pioneering French house producers Alain Braxe and Stéphane Quême (aka DJ Falcon) had no knowledge of each other’s production careers despite releasing their debut records on the same label.
Inevitably, their careers crossed paths and the duo began working on demos in 2014 before being convinced by label manager Peter Berard to release an EP for Domino’s new electronic dance imprint Smugglers Way. Sessions reconvened in Paris and at Braxe’s Toulouse studio, with the duo excited that their use of modular gear was eliciting a similar naivety to when they first started making music.
A sublimely melancholy EP with vocal contributions from songwriter Sunni Colón and Animal Collective co-founder Panda Bear, Braxe + Falcon’s collaboration has been so productive that they already plan to record an album together.
You’re cousins, so did you knew each other well growing up and share similar interests in music?
Alain Braxe: “No. When we were kids we met maybe ten times at family parties but didn’t discover each other until much later at clubs and backstage.”
Stéphane Quême: “I didn’t even know Alain had released his first record and it was a surprise to me. It’s funny because we both ended up releasing our first records on the same label, Roulé, but once we found out that we were both making electronic music we got much closer.”
It seems as though a lot of French house/disco artists are quite closely connected – there’s an air of cooperation rather than competition…
SQ: “I wouldn’t use the word cooperation, but there’s no competition. At the beginning of the 2000s there was a big explosion of French artists, which was quite cool and unexpected. That period gave the scene a lot of good memories that we were all happy to share together.”
The scene also seems to have a longevity that other genres crave…
AB: “I think that’s because it’s still linked to disco and even new French producers have that strong heritage. It’s funny because at one point the definition ‘French Touch’ appeared. We never really felt comfortable with that, but it’s true that there’s been a French sound for 25-30 years and it’s interesting to see how it keeps evolving. Do you have the feeling that it’s coming back strongly in the UK?”
It seems to remain eternally fresh, which is ironic considering the sound has quite a nostalgic vibe…
AB: “Nostalgia is a good feeling; happiness and sadness is a perfect mixture [laughs].”
SQ: “Because of what we’ve been through with Covid it seems like people want something that’s a little more nostalgic. We released the track Creative Source, which is a bit of a tribute or homage to the French house era using 20-year-old samples that I still had on my sampler. We noticed that people reacted in a super-positive way, so you’re right that there is an element of nostalgia involved.”
Stéphane, you haven’t released music for decades. What was the reason for your lack of activity?
SQ: “When I made So Much Love To Give in the early 2000s, bands like Justice came out with a new kind of sound and a different vibe. At the time I was enjoying travelling and DJing and didn’t feel the pressure to repeat myself, but when Alain and I made Step By Step I felt it was a really good track to make a comeback with. It’s a bit different but still has my signature behind it.”
What was the chain of events that led you to make new music together?
AB: “About seven years ago we recorded quite a lot of demos but nothing went further than that. Then, two years ago, we started a conversation with Domino’s US label manager, Peter Berard, who heard the demos and thought there was some good stuff there. We were very lucky to meet Peter because a lot of labels would not have released Step By Step. It’s the kind of track you put on an album rather than the first single of an EP.”
Did Peter have to convince you to release the EP?
AB: “He said we should try to finish it and that was very motivating. We finished Step By Step first and that was an important song for us because it’s a downtempo ballad with acoustic drums. We didn’t want to come back with your typical French house 125bpm format – we’ve done that already and are not excited by that type of music anymore, so we felt it was crucial to push this kind of track as part of our first collaborative project.”
What was the vibe in those initial demo sessions?
SQ: “When we first went into the studio we felt that it was important to try to be as sincere as possible. I guess we were just curious to see where we would go, but we rapidly realised that we weren’t going in a four-to-the-floor club direction.”
AB: “We started to finish the record during the pandemic lockdown, so our whole state of mind was different. As musicians, we were in a lucky position because we could take time to lay back and focus on what we really like, which was making music that was not necessarily for clubs. The EP is a combination of all those things.”
Where was most of the recording completed?
AB: “The very first demos were made in Paris and the second batch and final mix were recorded at my studio in Toulouse. There was also some file exchange with Stéphane sending parts over from his studio in Biarritz, but we have very different studios – Stéphane has a lot of gear and I’m very minimal.”
Most people would imagine it to be the opposite…
SQ: “I have a lot of equipment because I’ve gone a little bit crazy with modular synths and it’s hard for me to get rid of things. I love experimenting with new gear, but having worked with Alain I’m starting to think it’s a good idea to work with more limited equipment.”
Despite your use of modular gear, the sound is still very familiar. Your creative process is more about the tools you’re using than the sound you’re looking to achieve…
AB: “It’s more about your state of mind than the sound itself and a different way of thinking. There’s also so much flexibility in being able to transfer your modular workflow into Ableton Live.”
SQ: “Another bonus is that modular brings a lot of happy accidents to the table, like MIDI used to. When you’re playing with a MIDI box and sending stuff to a sampler or a drum machine you create mistakes, and modular is perfect for that because you can use an envelope to sequence and twist everything. Finding different ways to use these modules is both satisfying and stimulating.”
AB: “Modular can be used for everything and that’s interesting to us because the possibilities are endless within a closed world. You can create leads, bass, effects, play chords, sample waveforms or make drums, and you also put yourself in a situation where you can finally have a relationship with a specific instrument, just like a guitar player with his guitar.”
Was there a typical starting point for a track?
AB: “We’re not real musicians in that we cannot really play keyboards or guitar, so the starting point for a track would usually be a modular synth loop or a few chords that we found by luck and then we’d start to build on top.
“There is a huge difference between the demo stage where the ideas emerge and the final production when we can sometimes spend two days working on a kick or snare drum. That can be painful and it’s counter-productive to be in the studio together tweaking knobs and fine-tuning EQs because it’s not very interesting.”
SQ: “At first, we were more focused on having fun with the modular synths, but the second time I came to Alain’s studio it was about bringing ideas that we had done independently as a starting point. Right now, we’re making demos separately and every time we have something cool we’ll send each other loops and ping pong ideas, which is a more efficient way to work, but we’ll always spend time together at some point.”
In what way did using modular inspire you?
AB: “We’d start a session in the morning and didn’t know where we were going but
there was always an end result. The most important thing is to press record as soon as something interesting happens and hopefully you’ll have 20 loops at the end of the day that can be used as the foundation for a track. After doing that day after day we had a sound library, which was very inspiring because the process was random rather than preconceived.”
SQ: “We like the idea that another producer has no idea how we made something and by mixing and matching all of these modular loops and cutting them up into different parts, we became addicted to creating the unexpected. With modular, you’re always learning something and when two people are having fun in the studio the music somehow reflects that.”
AB: “Speaking for myself, I’ve noticed that the more I try to control things the worse it gets, so we tried to be as naïve as we were when we started making music 20 years ago and had no idea what we were doing.”
To achieve longevity, is it important to unlearn the past?
AB: “It’s a very difficult state of mind to get into, but you just have to relax, let go and play. As I said, the more you try to control or make a certain type of sound, the worse things get, but the more you let go, the more you can rely on luck playing its role so, yes, unlearn is exactly the right word.”
The EP has an element of simplicity. Does experience allow you to know exactly what sounds and effects will work well together?
AB: “It’s deliberate but it also comes by default because we started making music by sampling loops and that has formatted our brains to make music in a certain kind of way. It’s what we love to do, what we know and hopefully what we’re good at. Making verse/chorus music is quite complex for us and comes from a very different angle.”
Is your modular gear routed through anything before it reaches the computer?
AB: “We put them through a mixer and various preamps and EQs but we both like the Strymon Magneto for its delay, reverb and pitchshifting effects. The main thing is that when we find a good sound we put it through converters to get a clean signal into the computer. Once it’s recorded we feel safe.”
You mentioned that you record into Ableton Live…
AB: “We use Ableton as a global plugin because the audio is very flexible, but as soon as we have all the parts ready we export them into Digital Performer because the sound is better and it’s easier to edit for finalisation. But we still use a lot of plugins for EQ, compression and saturation and some of them are super-creative these days.”
What modules do you favour?
SQ: “I have a Eurorack system and, as Alain said, we’re really big fans of the Strymon Magneto. I’m obsessed with Rossum, the guy behind E-mu who made the SP-1200, so I mainly work around the Electro-Music Assimil8or sampler because it’s so much fun. I also use a lot of the Cwejman modules because they have super-clean envelopes.
“The Orthogonal Devices ER-301 is great too because it has a lot of patching points and the Pamela’s Workout is a really cool module with eight outputs, so you can mix and match all the triggers and create some really interesting rhythms.”
Alain, we read that you’re a fan of the BEMI Buchla Music Easel…
AB: “I have the 208 without the keyboard and about ten modules on a different port. The Buchla world is quite simple because the number of modules is limited, but I have a collection of envelope generators, filters, oscillators and sequencers.
“I’m not a super-fan of Buchla oscillators, the 261e sounds a bit too cold but, once again, it’s not about the sound but the way that the modules interact with everything else. Because the modules are polyphonic I’m mostly working on one sound at a time – I start to feel anxious when the board is full of cables and I don’t know which one is doing what.”
SQ: “What’s interesting is that a lot of the big commercial brands are building controllers like the Arturia KeyStep and BeatStep Pro that have CV and gate outputs to connect to Eurorack. The amount of new modules being released every year is quite scary and it’s crazy to see the evolution of the platform.”
Do you feel that the Eurorack explosion is a reaction to software?
SQ: “With phones and other entertainment we’re already facing a screen for a big part of the day, so I guess a lot of people want to touch equipment and concentrate on what they hear, not what they see.”
AB: “There is also the price factor. Buchla is very expensive but Eurorack is much more affordable, which makes it exciting to build a setup. You can spend €100 on a module and slowly build your system instead of spending €3,000-4,000 on a polyphonic synth.”
SQ: “On the other hand, when you spend a lot of money on a good synth, you usually concentrate on that piece of equipment because you have to stick to the choice you made. It’s like being a kid at Christmas with a new toy – you’re forced to convince yourself that it’s the best thing ever because you can’t go back. These days, most kids just crack tons of plugins and don’t really cherish what they have.”
Stéphane, has the experience of working with Alain made you more enthusiastic to record music independently as DJ Falcon?
SQ: “Right now I’m mainly focused on this project and haven’t thought about anything else. We’re really excited and want to work on an album together.”
When might an album arrive?
AB: “2050? [laughs]. It’s difficult because we’ve started to tour again and have some DJ gigs, but the ideal situation would be to lock ourselves down again for a year to make an album.”
SQ: “We promise to make an album, okay?”
Braxe + Falcon's debut EP, Step by Step, is out now on Smuggler's Way.